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Chapter Twenty-Five

Ruby Sink's one-year-old grandniece, Loraine, was running a fever and had kept her mother awake all night.

'Poor baby,' Miss Sink said over the phone. 'Are you rocking her? Did you give her a baby aspirin?'

'Yes, yes,' Miss Sink's niece, Frances, said. 'I don't know what else to do. If I miss another day of work, well, there're plenty of people out there wanting my job.'

Miss Sink could hear Loraine squalling and imagined the child's bright red face. Day care was out of the question. Miss Sink simply would not allow the sick child to stay with strangers, nor did she want Loraine to pass on whatever she had to others.

'I'll be pleased as punch to keep her while you're at work,' Miss Sink said. 'And I bet you're frantically trying to get ready even as we speak.'

'Yes,' Frances said in despair. 'I haven't even showered yet.'

'I'm on my way right now,' Miss Sink said. 'I'll pick up Loraine and we'll have a grand day.'

'And if her fever doesn't break you'll call Dr. Samson? Just to make sure she's all right?'

'Of course, dear.'

'Oh, thank you, Aunt Ruby.'

'I was going to get out anyway at some point,' Miss Sink said. 'I've got only two dollars in my billfold and I owe the yard man and probably half of everybody else in this town.'

'You always say that, Aunt Ruby. The most broken record I ever heard. Mother said you were the richest poor person she ever knew.'

Miss Sink was saddened by the thought of her dead sister. Miss Sink had no one left except Frances and Loraine. Her spirit settled in that low place she could not tolerate.

'Why don't you have supper with me after work,' Miss Sink said. 'When you pick up our little angel child.'

'Depends on what you're cooking,' Frances said.

'I might just invite this lovely police officer I know,' Miss Sink said. 'The handsomest young man you ever saw, and so sweet. The one who writes editorial pieces for the paper. He rents my little place on Plum Street.'

'Him? Lord have mercy, I've seen his picture. He's too young for me, Aunt Ruby.'

'Why, that's nonsense,' Miss Sink said. 'Things aren't like they used to be.'

'He wouldn't be interested in me. He's so good-looking and all.'

'And you're pretty as a rosebud.'

'I'm older than him and have a child, Aunt Ruby.

Reality, you know?'

'I'm going to make my sesame-honey fried chicken. Cheese grits and fresh tomatoes with balsamic vinegar,' Miss Sink said.

'And just where are you going to get fresh tomatoes this time of year?'

'You forget I can them,' Miss Sink said. 'Now quit talking so I can be on my way.'

Smoke's girlfriend, Divinity, was the first to notice the red Jeep Cherokee abandoned in the Kmart parking lot, no more than a hundred feet from the First Union Bank.

'Well, look at that,' Divinity said to Smoke. 'That Jeep, just sitting there, nobody in it and engine running, waiting for us, baby.'

'No it's not 'cause we don't want it,' Smoke told her.

Smoke's mind was going through its routine, his concentration focused. He had turned off Puff Daddy when he'd picked up Divinity at the McDonald's on West Broad Street, where she'd let him know by pager that she was waiting for him. She had her hand on his thigh, but at the moment, he was aroused by other things as he watched an ancient Chevy Celebrity driven by an old woman park in front of the twenty-four-hour money stop.

'Oh, now don't be telling me you're into that one,' Divinity complained. 'Some old bitch driving that piece of shit?'

'It's the people with new cars that don't have money,'

Smoke said as he watched the old woman rummage in her purse.

He drove past her and tucked his Escort out of sight behind the bank.

'Get in line behind her,' Smoke ordered Divinity.

'For what? She probably only gonna get twenty, thirty dollars. I'd rather do the Jeep.'

She looked longingly back at it, wondering why someone would be so stupid to leave it like that in times like these days. Smoke rubbed his hand between her legs. Divinity laughed and grabbed him back.

'All right, all right,' she said. 'Whatever you say, baby.'

Miss Sink felt perfectly safe as she continued digging in her purse. She had no reason to worry about withdrawing cash from this particular location because it was just across from the Kmart parking lot, and Kmart opened at eight. Already there were quite a number of cars pulling in for bargains.

Loraine was awfully quiet in the back. She was strapped in and warmly dressed, and at the moment, not crying. Miss Sink got out of the car, still digging for her wallet. Her heart got tight as she tried to remember where she had shopped last, and if she might have left her billfold there. Her memory wasn't as good as it used to be and she was always making up all kinds of excuses to deny it.

At first, she didn't pay much attention to the young woman who stepped up behind her and started grabbing things out of a faded denim bag.

'I can't find nothing inside this thing, either,' the young woman said, rummaging loudly. 'Drives me crazy!'

Miss Sink turned around and was rather taken aback. The young woman was hard-looking in a very short skirt, tight black tank top and red Chicago Bulls windbreaker. She had rings in her ears, nose and one eyebrow, the style of the day, which in Miss Sink's opinion was no different from the mutilation she used to see in National Geographic.

'I don't know where I put it,' Miss Sink muttered in irritation.

She glanced back at her car, hoping the baby aspirin had helped and Loraine was asleep. The young woman stepped a little closer and something inside Miss Sink suddenly woke up. She got uneasy. She was relieved when a nice-looking young man came around from the back of the bank.

'Save any for me?' he said in a friendly voice.

He was well groomed and neatly dressed in the baggy, sand-blasted, Chicago Bulls fashion of the day. Miss Sink gave him an uncertain smile.

'Morning, ma'am,' he said to her.

Miss Sink didn't like his eyes. They were so intense, more like a stare, and there was something in them that spoke to her but she didn't want to listen. The young woman was standing oddly to one side of the machine, as if avoiding the camera. Miss Sink was beginning to feel frightened. She wanted to believe the young man would protect her.

'Worst thing ever invented. Spits out money like it's Monopoly,' the young man said as he also stayed out of range of the camera.

'Tell me about it,' the young woman said. 'I go through it like candy these days. Or would if some people'd hurry on up.'

He seemed like the sort of boy who might live in Miss Sink's part of town. He was probably getting money on his way to school, and she bet he went to one of the private schools like Saint Christopher's or Collegiate.

'You know, some of us gotta be somewhere,' the young woman said loudly. She was making faces, sighing, looking around and rolling her eyes. 'I can't be standing here all day!' She glared at Miss Sink.

'I'm sorry,' Miss Sink stammered, her nervous hands fluttering through her purse. 'I just hope I haven't lost it. Oh dear, oh dear.'

'You can't find it, old woman, then just get outta the way!'

'Hey, cool it,' the young man suddenly said.

He stepped closer to Miss Sink, but still off to the side.

'She was here first,' the young man told the little tramp.

'Well, I got my Visa card out, ready to go. Nobody tells Divinity what to do. Why you think they call me that? Because I am as divine as Jesus, that's why.'

'A terrible way to talk!' Miss Sink exclaimed. 'You better pray for forgiveness.'

'You better pray I don't take that tongue of yours and tie it around your old-ass neck.'

'That's enough!' the young man said to her.

'Fuck you, pretty boy.'

Miss Sink was trembling when she finally found her credit card. She promptly dropped it on the sidewalk. She almost lost her balance as she snatched it up, her heart drilling. She fumbled and dropped it again while the nasty young woman named Divinity made exaggerated sighs and swore.

Miss Sink managed to insert her MasterCard into the machine, and typed in her PIN and answered all questions. She could smell Divinity's cloying perfume and feel her evil spirit as ten twenty-dollar bills were ejected from the machine.

'That's a lot of bus money,' Divinity said to her sarcastically.

'Please leave me alone,' Miss Sink said in a shaky voice.

'Don't you tell me what to do, old bitch,' Divinity said in a tone mean enough to break the skin.

'Come on,' the young man said to Miss Sink. 'I'll walk you to "your car, ma'am.'

'Oh thank you.' Miss Sink almost grabbed his hand. 'Oh you're so nice. I can't thank you enough.'

Miss Sink caught a glimpse of Divinity tearing off a strip of duct tape and slapping it over the money machine's camera.

'We should call the police!' Miss Sink whispered to her escort as he opened the driver's door for her.

She didn't understand why he went around and opened the passenger's door, too.

'I want to ride with you maybe half a block just to make sure you're okay,' he explained as Divinity hung around the money machine, waiting to cause trouble for the next poor person who showed up, Miss Sink assumed.

She turned around to check on Loraine. Thank goodness she was sleeping. Miss Sink started the engine and locked the doors.

'I don't like the looks of that girl,' the young man said. 'Sometimes people like that work in pairs, like snakes. I'm worried there might be someone else around. You know, there's just something about all this that doesn't feel right. And I guess you've heard about these ATM robberies.'

'Oh, yes!' Miss Sink exclaimed. 'Thank God you came along when you did! You must be my guardian angel. I don't believe I know your name.'

'People call me Smoke.'

'Well, I hope you don't. Once upon a time I did. Can't tell you how hard it was to quit.'

'That's not why they call me that.'

Miss Sink backed up as the camera's blind eye observed nothing.

'They call me Smoke because I used to burn up things when I was a kid,' he said between clenched teeth as he snatched a gun out of the back of his pants and rammed it hard into her ribs.

'Oh dear God!' Miss Sink exclaimed. 'Oh no!'

'Keep driving,' Smoke snapped. 'That way. Around the back of Kmart.'

'Oh please, for God's sake,' Miss Sink begged. 'There's a child in the car. Just take what you want and leave us be.'

'Shut up, bitch!' he said.

Smoke watched Divinity drive the Escort from behind the bank, where it had been hidden. She inserted herself into the solid line of traffic creeping toward downtown, early morning light winking off windshields. He smelled shit and pee and at first thought it was the kid in the back seat.

'Fuck,' he said when he realized his victim had lost control of her bowels and bladder. 'I wish you hadn't done that.'

'I'm sorry. Please don't'

'Shut the fuck up, bitch. You're going to drive real normal and you try anything I'm gonna blow your sweet little baby's brains all over the back of the car while you watch.'

'Take anything,' she cried. 'Just don't hurt her. Anything you want. Oh please! Anything!'

'Shut up!' Smoke hissed.

Miss Sink was crying so hard her teeth were chattering. They drove behind Kmart and parked where asphalt gave way to acres of woods. Smoke grabbed her wallet out of her purse. He took the ten crisp twenties she had gotten from the money stop.

He robbed her of an additional two dollars and sixty-two cents, and quarters and tokens for tolls. Her watch and necklace weren't worth the trouble, and pawn shops were risky. She stunk so bad he was about to gag, and the fucking kid was waking up and beginning to cry.

'Loraine, it's all right, sweetie. Please be quiet, honey. My name's Miss Sink and this is my grandniece, Loraine,' Miss Sink prattled on. 'You don't want to hurt us. For God's sake, you must have a mother, a grandmother 'SHUT UP! QUIT NAGGING ME, YOU UGLY OLD BITCH!'

Smoke turned the radio up loud. The kid began to howl.

'SHUT THE FUCK UP!' Smoke yelled at the baby.

'Oh God in heaven! Please don't hurt us! Dear God! Think about what you're doing! You look like a smart young man. You don't want trouble like this!'

'I hate ugly old women like you. So you better shut the fuck up and consider yourself lucky I don't do other things to you. But you stink too bad,' he said in a low, cold voice. 'So now you're gonna bend over. So you don't see me when I get out. Okay?'

'Okay,' Miss Sink whimpered.

She pressed her face against the steering wheel. She squeezed her eyes shut and tightly covered them with her hands. She didn't move. She barely breathed. Annie Lennox was stepping on broken glass on the radio as Smoke dug through the glove box and the kid screamed. Smoke emptied the purse on the floor mat and helped himself to a pack of spearmint Freedent gum, fingernail clippers and a prescription bottle of Atavan.

'Thanks, Miss Sink,' he said. 'Grow up to be a good girl, Loraine. Y'all don't forget me, promise?' He laughed.

He popped a stick of Freedent into his mouth and scanned the area. No one was around.

'You know what I look like, bitch?' he said. 'I mean, you gonna recognize me on the street?'

'No. No. I didn't see you! Please,' Miss Sink begged.

'What 'bout that ugly little motherfucker of yours in her little seat back there. She know what I look like?' 'No! She's just a baby! You don't want to hurt us!' Miss Sink was shaking as if she was having a seizure. 'Let me think about this. What's a guy to do?' Smoke smacked his gum. He pulled back the slide of his Glock and it snapped forward with a loud clack. He felt the power. Smoke was high and hard with it as he pumped three Winchester hollowpoints into the back of Miss Sink's head.

Chapter Twenty-Four | Southern Cross | Chapter Twenty-Six